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Governance

The Story of Returning to the Tea Estate

Guest blog by Mahesan Niranjan

This time last year, I wrote an open letter to the Chair of our University Council (archived on the UCU blog here). I raised several points about scholarship and the need for better governance structures to support it. Nearly a hundred colleagues from across campus thanked me and agreed with my views. But, apart from a single exception, all of them ranked below the level of Head of Department. From the upper echelons, the reaction was simply one of politely raised eyebrows at my audacity in exercising my right to write.

More disappointing was my inability to trigger any open discussion within the community. Nobody expressed a view – in agreement or not – in public. I wondered why. Perhaps I was just wrong. Wrong about high salaries at the top end of our hierarchy. Wrong about annual appraisals and their demoralising effect. Wrong about the need for greater participation by the community in decision making. Wrong that scholarship is our revenue generator, hence academics should not be seen simply as costs. Wrong about the tuition fees we charge subsidising contract research. Perhaps those who agreed with me were a minority.

Or maybe we have accepted that we are mere human resources required to turn up at work and follow commands without question.

Hence this year, my reflections are inward. About myself. About my career of three decades. After all, I will be sixty soon. Grateful for what I have so far had. I can relax, have fun and reflect. Yes, reflect, for ‘tis the season of reflection.

I grew up in a tea estate in the central hills of Sri Lanka, a region of exceptional beauty. Hill after hill with rows of fresh green tea bushes. A tea estate has a special kind of beauty. Neatly pruned bushes grown to waist levels of the workers who pluck them. The workers, in bright coloured sarees with cane baskets hanging over their shoulders pluck tea with impressive skill: two leaves and a bud snipped with precision, and a palm-full of them periodically tossed over the shoulders into the basket. They continually chew mouthful of betel leaves to be spat on the deadly blood-sucking leeches that get between their bare toes.

Management of the estate is neat, efficient and hierarchical. There is the top level guy, usually the owner, referred to as the planter. Between him and the workforce is a layer of supervisors, known as kanganis. The planter sets the high level objectives for the estate. He (always it is ‘he’) defines how the workforce is partitioned into teams and which kangani supervises which team. Periodically, he shuffles the groups of workers among the hills. In days gone by, the planter was an European colonialist. The global thinker with vision and skill to spot where tea will grow and where it will be consumed, and what human resources would be needed to pluck the leaves and how precisely they shall be managed to maximise throughput. Since independence, the State and local entrepreneurs have taken over the estates, but retained the management techniques.

The kangani knows his place between the planter and the workforce. He is ambitious, dreaming of becoming a planter himself one day, though the probability of achieving that is infinitesimally small. In pursuit of that ambition, the kangani nods in the direction above to anything the planter cares to utter,  and barks orders downwards at the workforce. The objectives set by the planter are passed down as targets the workers should achieve: Pluck X kg a day, and you get N Rupees. Incentives also exist: Pluck 10% more the set target on any day, you get a reward of 1% increase in pay. If you overshoot, the target is raised by 10% the next day. Once in a while, when the kangani’s back is turned, the workforce have fun. They mimic his nods: “yes, Sir, yes, Sir, three bags full, Sir,” they tease and giggle.

During my childhood, I hated the tea estate. I hated the fact that the beauty of the estate hides intolerable inequality, poverty, hierarchy and exploitation. I wanted to leave the place as soon as possible and pursue scholarship and the discovery of knowledge, driven by curiosity. I did precisely that, leaving the tea estate and hiding myself in the bubbles of the Universities of Cambridge, Sheffield and Southampton. Three wonderful decades.

Somewhere mid-career an interesting thing happened. I was asked to take on a university management role. My father was amused. “How could you do a management job?” he wrote. “You are an absent minded scholar. You hate wearing a neck-tie. You read the Guardian. You buy the Big Issue. You go to work in socks and sandals. Son, you do not even have a strong enough brake between thought and speech.” Despite such scepticism, I took the role.

Towards the end of my tenure in the said management job, my father asked how it went. “Alright,” I reported, immediately inventing a performance measure to justify the claim. “Yes, a small number of people didn’t like the way I did the job, but they all ranked above me in the hierarchy, and those who ranked below all seemed appreciative.” The dislikes and likes being above and below, respectively, shows I did alright, I explained.

“How did you achieve that?” he asked. “I owe it,” I said with  sincerity, “to the transferable skills you taught me, from the way the tea estate was organised: the separation of the skill of the workforce from the profit-making objectives of the planter, by the ambitious intermediary, the kangani.” “All I had to do was to recognise the importance of the workforce, and not mimic the kangani. I simply refused to nod in agreement upwards and avoided barking orders downwards.” My father was amused by the term I had just used. “What did you say, transferable… what?” he asked. He was a teacher of English and a scholar of Sanskrit. He was a good linguist, too. Our mother tongue, Tamil, comes from the Dravidian family of languages, distinct form the Indo-European family which include English and Sanskrit. He has studied the flow of words, morphological changes and grammatical structures between Sanskrit and Tamil. His particular interest was in Hinduism, a religion in which communication between man and stone is executed in Sanskrit. Despite that background, my father has never come across the phrase “transferable skill”. As a teacher, he has always insisted that the primary purpose of education is joy, the pleasure achieved by discovering knowledge. He would accept the ability to solve previously unseen problems as a secondary benefit.

I have plagiarised his practice. I try to instil the idea that there is fun in machine learning, which is the subject I teach, and insist that my success is measured by my students being able to solve problems they have not seen before. The pleasure I achieved last week, for example, when a student of eight years ago wrote to thank me when he got appointed to a lectureship, far outweighs the irritation I tolerate when the moderated appraisal score is returned informing me of my mediocre performance in the previous year. It is apparently axiomatic in present day universities that there is a sharply peaked “bell-curve” of performance into which our scholarship could be packed.

I regard quality assurance processes as necessary, but not sufficient proxies for achieving high quality. There is an anecdote I heard about someone who wrote in an Annual Module Reflection Form (AMRF): “As a result of innovative teaching this year, half the candidates achieved a grade higher than the median mark.” That AMRF has been approved by several committees and filed somewhere, as testimony to the quality of the quality assurance processes that dominate our lives.

It wasn’t my father’s ignorance of the phrase “transferable skill” that bothered me. My casual use of the phrase shamed me. Whatever next, I wondered. Have I been house-trained into the system? Will I now speak of “strategic priority”? Or will I have a “vision”? Or will I start believing in “learning outcomes”? Or will I be “moving forward”?

A month after that conversation with my father, I was nearing the end of my tenure in that management role. I was called into the office of a senior manager. “You seem to have done alright… we would like you to continue for another term.” He had consulted the foot soldiers. “They all seem to like your work,” he reported his discovery, quickly adding “me too.”  I declined the offer. “I do not wish to continue. I need to get back to the research lab, the classroom, the journal club and the coffee room of the foot soldiers.”

So, I went back to the tea estate! Spotting two leaves and a bud at a glance with amazing skill; manipulating my fingers to pluck them with speed; rhythmically shoving handful of them into the basket that hung on my back. I am promised incentives if I perform above target: 10% plucked above target gets 1% increase in pay. But the kangani moves my target whenever I overshoot it.

Yet, occasionally, when the kangani’s back is turned, I do have fun, thinking of the tea estate workers and their “yes, Sir, yes, Sir, three bags full, Sir!”, for ‘tis indeed the season of reflection.

My name is bond, university bond…

Several universities have borrowed significant amounts of money from private and/or public investors. UK universities have issued £4.4bn in bonds since the beginning of 2013. This figure is scary given the total yearly HE sector income of about £30bn. This university has a £300M bond issued in 2017.

When we borrow money for a house mortgage, we repay interest and capital, so that the whole loan is eventually repaid. Or we can pay interest only, but this means there is still a debt to be cleared at the end of the term. The interest-only model is used for the university bond. The university will pay 2.25% interest every year, some £6.7M, and are supposed to pay the full £300M back in 40 years. (Oxford, has a bond for 100 years). The bond is akin to issuing shares to a group of shareholders who will have a steady regular income but it turns our university into a for-profit organization bound to make a yearly surplus to satisfy these investors.

This is the climax of marketization. Universities are burdened with financial obligation and under the surveillance of rating agencies. In recent weeks your UCU officers have been told that we are not allowed to know student numbers because this is ‘price sensitive’ information and we must not alarm the investors. How did we end up in an education institution that cannot tell us how many students we have?

When the bond comes to term those who made the financial decisions will be long gone, yet staff at the university will have paid the price many times over. How did we end up here? Such endeavours would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. The game changer of course was the reduction in public investment in Higher Education. Alongside the introduction of student fees and loans these kinds of bond arrangements shift public investment into private debt. A great way to make the national budget look better but not necessarily the best way to support education. The bond is a millstone around our necks: it demands that we – the staff – generate surplus. This is clear in the 10 year plan [password required], the source of pressures to reduce staff pay, pensions and announce redundancies, which UCU are currently fighting.

In the appointment of our next Vice-Chancellor, it is essential that we, as an academic community and as UCU, seek a Vice-Chancellor who will stand up with our community against the marketization of education. We need a Vice-Chancellor who will work towards more democracy and listen to frontline staff and students so that we are integral to the university strategy rather than mere recipients. There is still time to sign the petition about the appointment of the next VC and to make sure your voice is heard.

University Governance – Time to take back control?

The news that our VC and President Sir Christopher Snowden is retiring a little earlier than anticipated has provoked a number of conversations by staff and students about what kind of VC we should hope for next. The emerging consensus seems to be ‘not more of the same please’.

Several colleagues have expressed relief at Sir Christopher’s departure and suggested that this is an excellent opportunity for those critical of the direction of the University over recent years to inform the appointment process for the next VC. We very much hope that the next VC will rebuild relations with academic and academic-related staff, and begin to repair the damage done to our University

The appointment process for the new VC must be transparent and take account staff concerns and morale. We have had two VCs in a row who arrived with a negative reputation for difficult relations with staff in their previous Universities. Sadly both lived up to these poor reputations and both wasted considerable staff time and effort on top down reorganisations and cuts to frontline staff.

Having met the new Chair of Council before he took up his post, UCU will be seeking further dialogue over the coming months to help him understand staff and student concerns. Some key points that we will be putting forward are that our next VC:
1/ should receive a salary much closer proportionately to that of other senior University staff
2/ must dispense with management approaches based on surveillance and bullying, and instead adopt an approach which is collegial, consultative and supportive and, above all, which values staff
3/ should take a more active role in national debates about Higher Education and argue for Universities as a public good.

One of the reasons we have ended up with out of touch leadership and excessively paid top teams is the disconnect between front line academic and academic-related professional staff and the governance of the University. The opportunities for Senate to genuinely influence the direction of travel have been curtailed and many senators complain that they are forced to rubber stamp changes rather than being allowed to debate and influence them. Council too looks increasingly out of touch. Our analysis suggests that we have one of the most unbalanced Councils, dominated by private sector corporate representatives. Despite recent efforts Council still fails to be truly diverse.
Students too are poorly represented in these governance structures – a few sabbatical officers are allowed to attend and make reports but again the ability of the study body as a whole to comment on changes is limited.

UCU have been watching our colleagues over the border in Scotland responding to the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act introduced in 2016. This set out new requirements for Universities in Scotland in terms of how their Courts and Senates should be constituted, notably requiring that more than 50 per cent of members are elected, and that 10 per cent of members are elected students. We are aware that University of Edinburgh has a Task Group, convened by the Principal, to consider possible models which would comply with the Act. We need to ensure that our governing bodies represent frontline staff, and students and something like this would be welcome here. We had already flagged concerns that the restructure of the University will reduce representation on Senate and are awaiting a response on this. In addition we are concerned at reports from some faculties here that opportunities to stand for Senate are not communicated in timely ways, and that the process for election is not open or transparent. This too has to be investigated and improved.

Staff and students are rightly concerned that the University will appoint another VC who wreaks yet more damage. UCU will be arguing forcefully for a stronger voice for frontline staff and students in the selection process. We will continue to push for better governance. It is time for everyone who is concerned about our University to raise their voices – it is time we took back control.

University Governance part #1: the one where UCU met the new Chair of Council

University governance is a hot topic in several UCU branches at the moment. We heard at our recent AGM from Hedley Bashforth of Bath UCU about how their branch successfully used their governance structures to draw attention to the excessive pay of their VC and senior management. Others will recall the dispute at Leeds University in 2017 prompted by senior management attempts to change the statutes and ordinances there.  The recent branch conference at Bristol UCU debated governance and concluded that “Power needs to move away from the centre and towards staff”. We agree. Many of the problems we face, particularly those associated with recent decisions to restructure the university (again),  appear to be fueled by a failure of senior managers to listen to, or meaningfully engage with staff.

It was therefore a refreshing change when representatives from UCU were invited to meet with the incoming Chair of Council Phillip Greenish as part of his induction last week. Your branch President and Secretary who attended this meeting were pleased to have this opportunity to share your concerns about senior management and University governance.  Phillip asked us to keep the content of the conversation private but we can share with you the content of the briefing we prepared for him and that we asked to be circulated to Council members (see below).

The briefing below may be TL:DR (Too long: Didn’t read) so the summary version is: We want better governance and senior management, and we need the University to stick to negotiated agreements and policies. The list of our concerns is long but we highlighted three pressing matters for Council’s attention:  1. Workloads and poor mental health of staff 2. casualization and 3. the gender pay gap.

Text of the UCU briefing for University Council

UCU is the recognised trades union for academic and academic-related professional staff at the university. We represent staff employed at level 4 and above. UCU is the largest post-16 education trades union in Europe and nationally represents staff in Higher and Further education as well as in prison, agricultural and adult education.

The branch here has an executive team of 16 elected officers and a casework team of volunteers who support individuals experiencing difficulties at work.  All the officers are in employment in the University and devote a limited number of hours during or outside working time to UCU duties. We are supported by regional and national officials, and have access to employment lawyers when needed.

Our branch is one of the largest in the South of England and we have members across all staff grades. Membership has grown considerably in response to local organisational changes and national threats to our pensions. You will be aware of the significant strike and working to contract action at the beginning of the year, and may have the impression that this is a militant branch. In reality the branch is considered moderate by our peers. In the past we have worked positively and effectively with the senior managers to improve the working lives and experience of staff and students here. Unfortunately relationships with senior managers have deteriorated over the past few years.  We have also seen an increase in the number of staff needing our support.

There are three pressing issues we would like to raise with you and the Council

  1. Governance of the university. Staff here want governance that reflects our values. We need our senior managers to be, and be seen to be, more accountable to our community. Governance processes need to be much more open and transparent. Academic and academic-related staff representation and engagement in Senate needs to be strengthened – this vital body has become a passive recipient of information and is not currently effective. We also urgently need more diversity in the membership of Council. Certain kinds of private sector experience are over-represented and we need much more recognition that we are an academic institution closely aligned with the public sector values. We also need to see greater diversity of membership of our governance structures in terms of race, gender and disability to better reflect our community.
  2. Poor senior leadership and people management. Staff are concerned at the disconnect between senior managers and staff. Successive staff surveys have highlighted this and yet little progress is being made. We believe that if senior managers engage with staff and actively attend to organisational culture and low morale we can make this a great place to work we will attract and retain the best staff, and this in turn will attract students and research funding. We have suffered 15 years of restructuring and cuts, moving from 3 Faculties to 8, and now to 5, and this has seriously reduced our ability to deliver. Staff here feel demoralised and devalued. We need better managers and leaders.
  3. Failure to adhere to agreements and policies negotiated with the trades unions. Members of all the campus trades unions have worked hard to support senior managers to improve the University. As the recognised trades union for level 4 and above we have negotiated policy and practice changes and balloted our membership when necessary to ratify these. We have been dismayed at the way some senior managers have ignored these agreements to the detriment of staff and students here.

What we are asking you

We welcome this opportunity for two of the branch executive to meet the new Chair of Council. Some of us also met members of Council during the industrial action and were pleased to discuss our concerns with them.

We would like to ask members of Council to seek views of trades unions, staff and students.  Come and listen to us.  Please visit staff where they work so you can see first-hand what they experience (the view from Building 37 and the Senate rooms gives a very particular view of our workplaces and we are sure you comprehend the importance of also seeing life ‘below decks’).

We also ask you to work with us to address our concerns.  These include but are not limited to

  • Workloads and poor mental health – We continue to battle a workplace culture of presenteeism and overwork. The University is reliant on hours of unpaid labour by staff – at night and weekends. We see increased stress, mental illness and musculoskeletal conditions resulting in sick leave. Sometimes, tragically this overwork contributes to suicide. We must do better.
  • Casualization – lack of job security is detrimental for staff but also to the ambition of the University – fixed term staff are constantly distracted by having to look for jobs elsewhere. We need to value our staff so that we get the best from them.
  • Gender pay gap – it is shameful that we have made so little progress addressing this issue (and other diversity challenges). We need action to reduce our 21% pay gap, this means actually delivering on Athena SWAN action plans and developing all staff to challenge hidden biases.We need also to take meaningful steps to address pay disparities.

Finally we ask you to support the trades unions at the University. We want to work with senior managers and use our governance structures to improve the education and research we do. We have done so in the past and we can do so again. Please help us do this.

We hope that this is the start of a productive conversation between Council and the representatives of staff at this University and look forward to further meetings and discussion with members of Council.